FCC chairman to investigate exactly how much everyone hates Ars Technica data caps

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel in a photo taken during a conference call.
Zoom in / FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel at the Paley International Council Summit at the Paley Museum on November 8, 2022 in New York City.

Getty Images | Steven Ferdmann

Federal Communications Commission Chair Jessica Rosenworcel wants the FCC to open a formal investigation into how data caps hurt Internet users and why broadband providers still impose the caps. The investigation could eventually lead to the FCC regulating how Internet service providers like Comcast impose limits on data usage.

Rosenworcel yesterday announced that he had asked fellow commissioners to support a notice of inquiry into the matter. Among other things, the notice would ask for a comment from the public “to better understand why the use of data caps continues to persist despite the increase in consumer broadband needs and the demonstrated technical ability of providers to offer unlimited data plans”.

The investigation will also seek comment on “trends in consumer data usage…” Finally, Rosenworcel wants to ask for comment on the “FCC’s legal authority to take action regarding data caps.”

“In particular, the agency would like to better understand the current state of data caps, their impact on consumers and whether the Commission should consider taking steps to ensure that data caps do not harm competition or capacity of consumers to access broadband Internet services,” the press release reads.

Talk to the FCC about your experiences with the data limit

Although the proposed notice of inquiry requires a committee vote before it can be issued, the FCC has already created a “data caps experience form” and encourages internet users to use that form to “share their unique experiences and challenges with data limitations”. The FCC said it would listen to users of fixed services (eg., home Internet) and wireless broadband, “including the disabled, low-income consumers and historically underprivileged communities”. The FCC also wants details on how the data caps affect “access to online education, telehealth and remote work.”

The president’s office noted in its press release that “many broadband ISPs have temporarily or permanently refrained from imposing or enforcing data caps in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“Internet access is no longer nice to have, but necessary for everyone, everywhere,” said Rosenworcel. “As we emerge from the pandemic, there are many lessons to be learned about what has been working and what has not been working, especially what it takes to keep us all connected. When we need access to the internet, we don’t think about how much data is needed to complete a task, we just know it needs to be done. It’s time for the FCC to take a fresh look at how data caps impact consumers and competition.”

The FCC still lacks a Democratic majority

Rosenworcel likely can’t take any major regulatory action on data caps with the current four-member commission split evenly between Democrats and Republicans. Rosenworcel led the FCC without a Democratic majority for President Biden’s entire term because the Senate refused to confirm Biden’s nominee Gigi Sohn.

Biden tries again with the nomination of Democrat Anna Gomez. The Senate Commerce Committee scheduled a hearing on Gomez’s nomination for June 22. Confirmation requires the vote of the entire Senate.

Rosenworcel’s proposal to issue a notice of inquiry has been praised by advocacy groups focusing on broadband access. “Service providers’ limits on how data can be used may cause already disadvantaged consumers to withhold a number of essential online activities, such as telehealth appointments or educational programs, for fear of exceeding their monthly subscription limits. In fact , data caps reduce online activity and suppress residents’ full participation in a digital society,” said the Next Century Cities group.

Data limits called confusing and harmful

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society executive director Adrianne Furniss said the group “supports the FCC’s investigation into data caps that limit the amount of access consumers have to data before they are overcharged or excluded from service. There is little evidence that such limits are necessary, and their consequences can be particularly dire for vulnerable populations.”

“Data caps are especially problematic for low-income individuals who may face unexpectedly high fees at the end of the month due to exceeding a data cap,” Furniss also said. He called the data caps “insurmountable barriers for low-income consumers looking to access life-changing services online, such as educational tools” and said the caps are “particularly debilitating for deaf and impaired consumers of hearing who rely on Video Relay Service (VRS) to communicate.”

He argued that data caps can “limit access to telehealth services that otherwise reduce medical costs through video technology, support real-time treatment by first responders through the use of wireless devices, and improve well-being of the elderly and preventive care through telehealth and remote home care monitoring. In general, data caps are not appreciated by consumers, nor are they an effective means of managing network congestion.”

Public Knowledge senior vice president Harold Feld also urged the commissioners to approve the notice of inquiry. He said:

Data caps are one of the most confusing and damaging aspects of subscribing to broadband. How the hell can a wireless carrier offer multiple “unlimited” plans, each with different consequences for exceeding a different “soft” limit? How can subscribers accurately measure their data consumption? This is not like minutes or number of messages. And what about subscribers who have no choice but a cable or satellite plan that imposes a data cap? How many subscribers need to postpone a doctor’s appointment remotely rather than risk a premium or pay a premium for the privilege of using a streaming or gaming app? How does someone know how much bandwidth their smart home is using?

“In addition to burdening subscribers, these data caps potentially burden the economy as a whole,” Feld added. “By limiting consumers’ online activity, they severely limit their ability to innovate.”

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